(Translated by Jeanne W. Nemcová)
”I´d like... we´d like to send flowers abroad.
”Yes, I said wearily, and looked around for the order book.
”Is it possible?
”Yes, it´s possible.
”Just a moment, please.
Of course, my colleague always put the block of cash slips and the big registration book in the bottom of the filing cabinet. I could feel a big book was wedged in. Nervously I ignored it.
”Won´t you be seated, please?
They didn´t sit down. The younger woman shifted from one foot to the other.
”Please sit down, won´t you?... That´s right. It will take a little while.
The younger one smiled.
”Thank you.... You see, we don´t know how it´s done yet, we haven´t sent...
”I´ve been here once before, said the old one. ”Last summer I sent carnations for St. Anne´s Day, remember?
I didn´t remember, perhaps I´d been on holiday. The manager would go crazy if I didn´t come in fifteen minutes with the bank statement ready.
First the older one sat down. She was stout and aggressive and she sat in the modern armchair and leaned back contentedly. Ske looked at the dust on the coffeee table and smiled encouragingly at the young woman.
”Are you listed in our file?
”Yes, in my name, said the old one.
In the meantime the young woman sat down too. She sat there timorously, balancing on the edge of her chair, and it almost tipped over. That damned Šimák , I´ve already told him to fix the back of that chair somoehow or somebody will break his neck here. I smiled at her and my glance slid down to her legs, rather pretty legs they were, and maybe that was why she sat down so gingerly and was afraid to lean back in the chair - please, just sit all the way back, it´s one of those new-fangled chairs, you know.
She shifted back a bit and straightened her cheap skirt.
”Do each of you wish to send flowers separately?
The old one leaned forward.
”No, not I. Just Vierka ... my daughter would like ...
The young woman rose and laid aside her long pink handbag which was half open and from which protruded a peace of paper and a fountain pen. She mumbled her name, and her hand, which I quickly released, was warm. I looked at the mother.
”Where are the flowers to go?
At the next desk beside the window, Mrs. Majerová´s typewriter rattled and the young woman in the armchair grew nervous and leaned towards me.
”Is it really possible ... to send flowers all the way to ...?
We know that kind of customer by now. They keep asking and refusing to believe. ”It really is possible, anywhere you like, look, I hesitated, ”madam - Sopron, Jena, Malmoe, Québec, Warsaw. Here you have Johannesburg and now we are handling a delivery from Mexico City. When are we to have the flowers delivered, please, and where?
She had a low-pitched, pleasant voice and the endings of her words were lost in the rattle of the typewriter.
”Is it possible to Australia too?
”Certainly ... date?
They looked at each other.
”Well, speak up, Vierka.
”Could it be on the 31st:
I looked at the calendar and turned a page: Billling date. Maintenance plan. Remodelling - Vican. Call Alena.
In the meantime, Majerová indicated to me that she´d put water for tea on the hot plate under my desk. I could smell scorched, damp paper and I tried to lean down to unplug the electirc burner. The old one drew out the crumpled paper from her daughter´s handbag and gave it to me. Dr. Emil Klimo, 98 Gold Bay Ave., Coogee, Australia. For God´s sake, Coogee, Australia. No state. Coogee. I leafed through the big, blue, thousand -page directory of members of the international gift service.
I crossed to the other side of the office and noticed that the young one was wearing new shoes. ”Eva? Yes, I know. The manager´s leaving already? I can´t help it, I´ve got customers here. Sorry. Is he blowing his top? Pity. Tell him to stuff it. I´ll come to see you. ´Bye.
The young woman turned to her mother.
”I knew it wouldn´t be possible there. That town, rather and she turned to me, ”it´s just some sort of little settlement and he ...
”Let´s have a look.
Australian Unit. The yellow pages. Coogee ... Coogee Florist, 228 Bank Street, New South Wales.
And another Coogee: Rothwell´s , 1030 Rochingham Road, Western Australia. God, I´m hungry and that water for tea is boiling away.
”Do you know in which state it is?
”The Commonwealth of Australia is a federation and the town Coogee is listed twice, in different corners of the continent, it seems.
The young woman took up her handbag, unbuttoned her coat, and pulled down her sweater.
”We don´t know. just what´s there on that paper. There´s the word Sydney too.
”We don´t correspond, the mother said curtly.
”We don´t correspond.
The young woman echoed it quietly and her voice died away in the rumble of a train which passed under the window.
I wanted to give her back the slip of paper, to put away all the books and order forms, and go to see Eva in the next office. The young woman was staring helplessly into the green glass on the coffee table and she could feel how my desk jiggled with the rhythm of my nervous feet.
”Excuse me a moment, I said and hurried out of the office.
”Do you have an atlas, Eva? I´ve absolutely got to have an atlas. No, comrade, I haven´t been to the National Committee yet - you had a small world atlas. I need Australia - it´s terrible, I´ve told the suppliers twice to buy some kind of a wall map of the world - sir, don´t you know what state Sydney is in - in Western Australia after all - my God, Irenka, you graduated from grammar school a year ago, you ought to remember, who knows when it´ll come in handy?
When I returned, the young woman´s eyes were shining.
”It´ll be in Western Australia if it´s near Sydney, as you say, I announced. I started to fill in the name of the firm, then I clenched my fist and the young woman was still on tenterhooks. That fellow´s an idiot - how can Sydney be in Western Australia? I early remember our geography teacher once brought a copy of Kisch´s Landing in Australia to school and Sydney was somewhere down in the right-hand corner of that funny-looking Australian egg.
”What kind of flowers should they be?
”Can we choose? Do we have a choice? Won´t they wilt on the way?
No, madam, they won´t wilt, we don´t send the flowers from here at all, this is a service, you see. We send a special order and there in Coogee, in that strange little city with a Golden Bay, there´s an avenue and a humid florist´s shop and there someone will receive our order and they´ll choose the flowers, wrap them carefully, and send them by panting messenger boy to the Mister something-or-other. That Fellow´s got a Slavic name. In this kind of work, a person learns to be discreet and we never ask our colleagues about any customer or anything. The whole world says it with flowers, the poster screams on the wall, the whole world is discreet, everything is carried on in the language of roses, carnations, and orchids, and sometimes wreaths, women in black, sometimes they even sob, yes, young lady, the flowers will be fresh, you may be sure.
”Goodness, Mum, it´s quarter to twelve already and you ought to go to the doctor´s with Milanko.
”Well? Plenty of time till twelve.
I had to interrupt them.
”Could it be roses?
The young woman nodded hastily. Roses, certainly roses. Red.
”It´s for a name day, you see. I don´t know, but roses would certainly be most ... ”
I assured her that roses were the best thing she could order. In the meantime I noticed how the young woman kept trying to make her mother leave.
”Before you get to the tram ... you´ve got to change at Avion ... by the time you dress him.
I got up and placed a small card on the table.
”You may send a card, if you like.
The young woman rose nervously and almost knocked over a vase on the table. Then, as though she had got hold of herself, she turned to the older woman and pointed to her watch.
”I´ll come after you, Mum, but go on now.
The card lay on the table untouched.
”You won´t write anything, will you?
”Yes, of course.
She seized the card. I set her at an empty table and offered her a pen.
”All right, as you like, the mother said so loud that Majerová stopped typing for a moment and looked around.
The the older woman hurried off without a word, and what she grumbled as she left was drowned by the slamming of the door.
The young woman paled, still holding the empty card indecisively in her fingers. I came back to my desk and began to fill in the international order form. DATE OF DELIVERY. NAME OF RECIPIENT. FLOWER SHOP ...
It was quiet for a moment, Majerová rustled her carbon apper, I looked around and saw that the young woman still wasn´t writing anything.
”Excuse me, may I have your identity card please?
She looked startled. Maybe she hadn´t expected that. I felt I was being unpleasant, too official. When the older woman had left the tension has eased and I wanted to tell her something sweet and kind, something that would bridge the gap. Who is Mr. Klimo? Father, brother? School friend? Old or young? Does this young woman know him? Certainly she knows him, she knows him very well, she doesn´t know what to do, she´s so amazed that she can write a couple of lines.
She rose and stood over the table. - ”Excuse me, what does ... what does one usually write?
Ah, that´s it! I really am an idiot. Why, she probably doesn´t know English,. she doesn´t know they say it there ... ”Well, usually one writes Happy Name-day, something like All the Best for Your Name Day. We can write it in English, on the typewriter, as you like. Does this person understand Slovak?
”Yes. Slovak is quite all right. She said it almost indignantly. Then she sat down. ”Thanks. I´ll think of something.
”Just not very much, please ... and don´t seal the envelope, if you don´t mind.
Majerová started to type again and finally I unplugged the hot plate and poured the boiling water into my teacup.
The door opened.
”I forgot my shopping bag ... I´ve got the slip for the doctor in it. ... the older woman wheezed and scrutinized her daughter, ”oof, those stairs of yours ... aren´t you comming yet, Vierka?
I turned around.
”We´re not quite ready yet, madam. It will take just a little while longer.
”Wait outside, Mum, please, or you´ll be late. I´ll follow you in a minute, yes, I´ve still got to pay and it´ll be finished - ´bye, Mum.
At that moment I wished Mrs. Majerová would go away too. I would take the identity card from this this young woman and the correspondence card, I´d carefully open the unsealed envelope, I´d look at the trembling signature - Viera. Viera, Viera, Gold Bay Avenue. Young lady, he doesn´t write to you, he doesn´t send anything, nothing, absolutely nothing. I can tell you by looking at you, you´re not like other old customers who wear Tuzex sweaters, scarves, and shoes, and sometimes even offer you a Chesterfield or a Philip Morris. How did you guess he doesn´t send me anything, no, she is embarrassed, I´m embarrassed too, my mother, as you saw, makes scenes about it and perhaps he´s living there with some slut and talking a foreign language and I live here alone and he´s got a name day, you see, we used to give flowers on our name days, he was so thoughtful and I would have jumped in the fire for him in those days.
And why did that person go away, that Mr. Klimo? Emil Klimo? Who will tell me - so you know, Vierka? Why did this man run away and is he happy? And he doesn´t send anything, just once, a long time ago, he sent a postcard, and here there´s someone named Milanko. I don´t know who that is - Milanko - perharps it´s her son, who knows whether it´ s Klimo´s or somebody else´s , he knows hit fat granny and his still-slender mum.
”The identification, if you please ...
I held the clean little red identity book in my hand and the correspondence card beneath it to which he would send no answer. Coogee, New South Wales, Australia.
”Sit down for just a moment, please.
And you haven´t had your name changed yet.
”That will be 45 crowns ... If the flowers don´t arrive in time, you ask for your money back.
I took the money from her and our hands touched, they trembled with a brief spark. You can ask for your money back.
The telephone began to ring.
Translated from: A. Hykisch: Stretol som ťa (I Met You, Smena, Bratislava 1963).
Published in: Czech and Slovak Short Stories, Selected, translated by Jeanne W. Němcová, Oxford University Press, London 1967